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Holiday Dishes That are Actually Good for You

1. Turkey

It’s the best option among the traditional centerpieces. There are 168 calories and 2 grams of fat in a 4-ounce serving of breast meat without skin. (The skin adds about 50 calories and 6 grams of fat.)

Spiral ham is comparable in calories and fat but has more than 1,000 mg of sodium in 4 ounces. Ham is also a processed meat and contains nitrites and nitrates, which are potentially carcinogenic. Standing rib roast, meanwhile, has about twice the calories and 16 times the fat as turkey.

Some turkeys are injected with a saline solution to make them juicier, so check labels; they can have as much as 300 mg of sodium in 4 ounces.

2. Pumpkin

Pumpkin spice has been a long-standing holiday flavor trend in foods and beverages. That would be fine except that “spice” often means added sugars, not just nutmeg and cinnamon.

But pumpkin itself is a nutrition powerhouse high in fiber, vitamins A and C (important for vision and fighting infection), and antioxidants, and it has just 30 calories per cup. Whether you’re using it in a pie or a savory dish such as risotto or pasta, choose a fresh or frozen version, says Allison Sylvetsky Meni, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“If you’re opting for canned, make sure you read the label,” she adds. Look for 100 percent pure pumpkin, not pumpkin-pie filling. That has 120 calories and 27 grams of sugars in a half-cup—nearly 7 teaspoons—a vast majority of it added. And that’s even before it gets into the pie.

3. Sweet Potatoes

Another brightly hued vegetable that’s high in fiber, vitamins A and C, and antioxidants, sweet potatoes don’t need much to make them taste good. Just bake them with a little olive oil. Adding marshmallows, butter, and brown sugar ups the fat and calorie load significantly. There are 149 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar in a half-cup of sweet potato casserole vs. 115 calories, 9 grams of sugar, and almost no fat in a medium sweet potato. Avoid canned varieties packed in heavy syrup.

4. Cranberries

Check the label on canned cranberry sauce and you’ll find more than 20 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugars in each quarter-cup serving. You could skip them, but these tart berries are high in fiber and rich in healthy plant compounds called polyphenols, some of which may improve your body’s ability to process glucose.

“You can make your own cranberry sauce, but you’ll still have to add some sugar just to make the taste tolerable,” Sylvetsky Meni says. “At least making it yourself will allow you to reduce the sugar content, perhaps by half, and not even notice it.”

You can also sweeten cranberries by making a cranberry sauce with apples or oranges.

5. Hot Cocoa

Credit the flavanols, good-for-you antioxidants that may improve blood vessel function, for cocoa’s spot in the “healthy” column. A 2013 study by Harvard University found that people not diagnosed with dementia (the average age of the participants was 73) who had impaired blood flow to the brain and who drank 2 cups of flavanol-rich hot cocoa daily for 30 days saw an improvement in the brain’s blood circulation and on memory tests. Forgo the instant mixes; make your own using unsweetened cocoa, low-fat milk (which adds calcium), and a teaspoon of sugar.

6. Shrimp Cocktail

Skip the cheese and crackers, and choose shrimp as an appetizer. Five large shrimp have only 33 calories and 6 grams of protein. Shrimp do have cholesterol, but dietary cholesterol doesn’t have a significant impact on your blood lipids, though experts once thought it did. And unlike many cholesterol-rich foods, shrimp is low in saturated fat, a type of fat that’s linked to heart disease risk. Shrimp also contain antioxidants, including selenium and astaxanthin. Note that cocktail sauce may contain high amounts of sodium.

7. Potatoes

It’s the way potatoes are served at holiday meals—loaded with butter or cream or doused in gravy—that makes them a less-than-optimal dietary choice, not the spuds themselves. One medium potato has 159 calories and 36 grams of carbohydrates—less than a cup of cooked pasta. Potatoes are packed with blood-pressure-lowering potassium and fiber, and also supply magnesium, iron, and vitamin C.

If your holiday table isn’t complete without a bowl of mashed potatoes, lighten them up. Start by using Yukon gold potatoes, which have a slightly buttery flavor on their own. Use milk or Greek nonfat yogurt instead of cream, and cut back on the butter. Or try roasted potatoes sprinkled with rosemary for a change of pace.

8. Nuts

It’s the time of year when fresh nuts in the shell are displayed in many supermarkets. Consider putting out a bowlful and a nut cracker as a predinner snack.

Nuts are rich in antioxidants and healthy fats. And nuts in the shell are time-consuming to eat—cracking them slows you down and may help you eat more mindfully.

9. Chestnuts

There’s a classic, holiday feel to chestnuts—especially roasted over a fire—and there are nutritional benefits to these holiday treats as well.

When compared with other nuts and seeds, such as almonds, chestnuts don’t have the same levels of healthy fats or protein. But they’re still a good source of dietary fiber, magnesium, heart-healthy folate, vitamin C, and potassium, which can help control blood pressure.

You can try scoring an “X” into them with a knife and then either roasting them in the oven or boiling them to add to a soup.